Six months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, efforts to assess the war’s environmental impact are still in their infancy. The relentless shelling of Ukrainian industrial sites has released poisonous substances, polluting the country’s soils and rivers and threatening its rich biodiversity. With most of Ukraine’s nature reserves located in conflict zones, activists warn that the extent of the damage is yet to be discovered.
Pictures of burned-out Russian tanks lying abandoned along Ukraine’s roads and tracks have become a familiar sight after six months of devastating war between the two neighbours. Less well known is the environmental cost of the more than 5,000 such military wrecks that Moscow’s forces have lost so far, according to a US intelligence tally.
“Russian tanks can carry between 500 and 1,600 litres of fuel,” says the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group (UNCG), an environmental advocacy group. While some of Moscow’s tanks had – notoriously – been running on empty, others continue to leak fuel and lubricants. “These contain lead and other heavy metals, polycyclic arenes found in all fossil fuels and a number of other volatile organic compounds,” the NGO warns.
As war continues to rage across swathes of the country, the contamination of soils and waterways is a major concern for environmental activists. Ukraine is one of Europe’s most industrialised countries, home to an estimated 6 billion tonnes in liquid waste derived from coal mines, chemical plants and other heavy industries. Over the past six months, such highly sensitive sites have been relentlessly targeted by Russian shelling.
According to data from the United Nations Environment Programme, Russia’s war has inflicted damage on a host of sensitive sites including nuclear power plants, oil and gas infrastructure, drilling platforms, distribution pipelines, coal mines and agro-industrial sites. Explosions at such sites have released hazardous substances into the air, including solvents, fertilisers and nitric acid.
Poisoned air and rivers
In a July report, the UN warned of a “toxic environmental legacy” for Ukraine and the wider region, one whose effects will be felt “for generations to come”. Days later, Ukraine’s environment ministry issued a report detailing a series of explosions at industrial sites it blamed on Russian shelling. “Large-scale fires” triggered by the shelling “lead to air poisoning by particularly dangerous substances”, the report warned, noting that “pollutants can be carried by winds over long distances”.
Samples taken from a river near the city of Ternopil, east of Lviv, have revealed ammonia levels 163 times higher than normal, and nitrate levels 50 times too high, after a nearby fertiliser factory was hit by debris from a Russian missile. Kyiv has also accused Russian forces of “deliberately striking at the infrastructure for water intake, purification, and supply, as well as sewage treatment facilities.”
The UNCG also draws attention to the pollution caused by sulphur contained in bombshells, stressing that “the sulphuric acid formed upon contact with water destroys the seeds and roots of vegetation”.
“This conflict is extremely polluting both in its intensity and extent,” said Nickolai Denisov, head of Zoï Environment Network, a Swiss-based NGO. “No region of Ukraine has been spared,” he added.
Wildlife in peril
Ukraine’s protected forests, wetlands and steppes are home to numerous rare species of plants – many of which are now threatened by war. The UNCG has drawn up a list of 20 endemic plants whose preservation is now jeopardised by the passage of military vehicles, the relentless shelling, and the devastating fires that are left to burn in combat zones.
One in three hectares destroyed by fire in Ukraine is part of a protected area, according to the NGO, which counted more than 37,000 fires caused by strikes between February and June – just four months into the war – based on data collected by NASA satellite images.
Ukraine’s rare plant species are predominantly found “in Russian-occupied territories where large-scale bombing is taking place,” UNCG lamented. “If we lose these species in their natural environment, we will lose them forever.”
Off Ukraine’s southern coasts, the war has resulted in another, more unexpected casualty. Sonar emissions from warships are maiming the dolphins that roam the Black Sea, damaging their inner ears. Nearly 3,000 have been found dead on the shores of the Black Sea, according to a count carried out by Turkish, Ukrainian, Romanian and Bulgarian scientists.
Ukraine is also a transit area for migratory birds, particularly its coastal areas that serve as nesting grounds. Nature reserves currently located in combat zones play an “extremely important role in preserving the populations of many bird species on a European scale,” according to the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group, whose members are no longer able to access protected areas to assess the damage.
Preventing – and documenting – ‘ecocide’
While Kyiv has accused Moscow of attempting to carry out “genocide” in Ukraine, NGOs like UNCK say their mission is to prevent an “ecocide” taking place in the country.
“We lack accurate data because at the moment it is impossible to survey the combat zones, either because there are mines or because they are front lines or occupied territories,” said Oleksiy Vasyliuk, the NGO’s director. “But it is still essential to measure the impact of the war as accurately as possible.”
Assessing the extent of the damage “will take time, once the war is over,” said Denisov, whose Zoï Environment Network has published an interactive map of the conflict’s ecological risks. “In the meantime, we need to closely document all traces of fighting so that we are able to measure its consequences on the environment,” he added.
The Ukrainian government has drawn up its own inventory of the environmental damage blamed on the Russians and is considering seeking compensation before international courts. It has also signed up to an environmental restoration plan financed by the European Union and other partners, whose contours were presented last month. The plan notably includes forest “renewal” and building rehabilitation centres for wild animals.
However, several environmental organisations have warned against attempts to speed up logging and convert old forest areas into agricultural land. They have sent a letter to the European Commission asking it to ensure that the initiative, which includes billions of euros in grants and loans, comes with stringent environmental conditions.